Kaina al Badawi hurried down a rubble-strewn street towards the city center of Raqqa, Syria. In the distance, she could hear automatic weapons and the occasional thump of an incoming mortar round. It was morning, but already the heat from the merciless sun was causing her to sweat under the black hijab covering her body. She adjusted her veil, which was in danger of falling below her chin, as she pressed on. The dress code was strictly enforced, and even a small infraction could result in a flogging. A small cloth bag, slung over her shoulder, carried all of her personal possessions.
The street she was following had once been one of the main arteries leading into the old city. She could feel the history of the once grand buildings, which were dotted with faded posters praising the leaders of ISIS. Now, the street was a war zone, the smell of smoke and dust strong in the air and rubble two feet deep. She hugged the walls of the destroyed buildings as she moved, using them as cover against snipers the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) had deployed in the area. The snipers would shoot at anyone: man, woman, or child.
The Battle of Raqqa started two months earlier, on June 6th. Abu Osama al-Tunisi, the ISIS fundamentalist commander, taunted the ragtag coalition forces of the SDF, claiming that the city was unconquerable. He had over four thousand fighters who had spent months digging deep trenches and tunnels connecting major strong points. His troops were battle-hardened fanatics, ready to die for Allah. They would make short work of any SDF attack.
But what advantage he had in personnel was nullified by the powerful and precise firepower directed against him by the U.S. Special Forces, who were pulverizing his defenses with artillery and bombing campaigns. The enemy seemed to have an endless supply of death that rained down on them from the sky. One strong point after another was crushed, forcing his forces to fall back toward the city center. Today, ISIS controlled only forty-five percent of the city, tomorrow it would be less.
An hour prior, a mujahideen soldier appeared at the bunker near the Uwais al-Qarni Mosque, where Kaina and ten other women were sheltering after heavy fighting the day before destroyed their previous hiding place. He announced his orders were to bring her to the headquarters of al-Tunisi. Kaina gathered up her few remaining belongings; a change of clothing, a comb, the Qur’an, and a chunk of bread, all the food she had left, and meekly followed the mujahideen out of the bunker into the danger outside.
Kaina wondered why al-Tunisi wanted to see her now, but she knew better than to ask questions. It was not her place to do so, and it might infuriate the mujahideen. During their last meeting, Al-Tunisi had ordered her to stay out of harm’s way once the fighting started. Too much time and resources were spent in her training to lose her to a stray bullet. But what did that matter now? The city was surrounded by the SDF. Fear showed in the faces of all but the most fanatic fighters. It was only a matter of time before they were all dead or captured. The fool should have let her leave months ago, when it was easy to disappear without a trace.
The mujahideen stopped outside the bunker, searching for any movement in the buildings ahead of him or the glint of sunlight reflecting off of metal. Either might indicate a sniper was present. They were only a few blocks from the front lines, and the enemy could have easily infiltrated down one of the many narrow alleyways which honeycombed the area.
Kaina stood quietly, waiting for instructions.
He turned to her. “Do you know the way to the National Hospital?”
“Yes, of course. I have been there many times.”
He looked annoyed at her answer. “You have been there only because the commander thought there was some small way you could help the jihad. Do not pretend otherwise. We're going there now. Stay behind me. There are areas we must pass through that aren't secure. If I'm killed or wounded, you must continue on without me. Show this to anyone who challenges you.” He reached into his pocket, removed a piece of paper, and pressed it into her hand. “It will give you safe passage.”
Turning his back to her, he scanned the street one more time. He started ahead slowly, his gaze lingering on the broken windows, searching for any dangers that might be lurking. Kaina followed obediently behind.
It was about two miles as the crow flies to the National Hospital. But the mujahideen did not take a direct route, carefully avoiding areas Kaina knew were not safe. Twice he halted and called out into a seemingly abandoned bombed-out building ahead. A voice issued a challenge, and a password would be exchanged. What looked like ruins were actually well camouflaged bunkers.
After almost an hour of zig-zag traveling, they arrived at the al-Naim roundabout in the city center. The area was a strong point, and fighters were everywhere. The mujahideen, perhaps feeling safe from snipers, picked up his pace. She jogged to keep up with him. Their destination lay a short distance ahead.
The hospital was a small two story building with a basement that held the command staff. The second floor was heavily damaged from atillery fire. It was guarded by the most loyal soldiers al-Tunisi possessed. The mujahideen was well known and highly respected, earning deferential treatment from them. Everyone knew he reported directly to the commander. As Kaina passed the various checkpoints, she could feel the guards' eyes upon her; women were not usually given passage here, but since she was with the mujahideen, they let her pass. Entering the hospital, they made their way to a set of stairs which lead down into the basement. The mujahideen stopped and spoke in a whisper to a soldier standing guard there. The soldier nodded and disappeared down the stairway.
Kaina had been in the basement several times before the siege of Raqqa began. She knew the layout well. To the right of the stairs, Al-Tunisi had his office and living quarters. To the left was a communications center and behind that, a large room in which ammunition was stored. The remaining space served as a barracks of sort, providing shelter for the soldiers during periods of intense bombardment. It also housed a large population of rats, who tormented anyone working there. It was dimly lit with kerosene lamps, and smelled of sweat and mold.
The soldier returned and beckoned the mujahideen to follow him. The smell was overwhelming as all three trudged down thei stairs, turning right at the bottom. With a quick rap of his knuckles, the soldier heard a muffled order from the other side of the office door to enter. He opened the door wide, the light from outside streaming in, and gestured for the mujahideen and Kaina to enter. He did not follow, letting the door slam shut behind them with a dull thud.
A middle-aged man stared at them from behind a desk. The faint smell of tobacco hung in the surrounding air. A kerosene lamp on his desk provided a feeble light. His face was deeply lined from many day in the intense desert sun. A scraggly white beard covered his chin. On his head was a black turban, stained with sweat and dust.
The lamp cast shadows into the room. A few chairs were scattered around the desk. The black flag of ISIS hung on the wall behind it. A map of the city was tacked to another wall. A military cot, covered with a ragged blanket, was in a back corner. The linoleum floor was cracked and filthy with dirt. An AK-47, its barrel glinting in the light, rested against the side of the desk.
The man rose to meet them. He was thin, of average height, and his uniform gave no indication of his rank. But he had a commanding presence, and a first-time visitor would have been instantly aware that he was in the presence of al-Tunisi.
The mujahideen placed his hand over his heart and gave a slight bow. “Abu Osama al-Tunisi, I've brought the woman here as you commanded, thanks be to Allah. How else may this humble servant be of service to you?”
The commander stepped from behind his desk and firmly shook the mujahideen’s calloused hand. “Brother, you've done a great service to our cause. I feared that perhaps you wouldn't find her in all the chaos. This woman is part of a great plan that will ensure the Caliphate victory over the infidels. Please wait outside while I talk with her.”
The mujahideen’s face was impassive. After a quick appraising glance at Kaina, he bowed again and left the room.
Al-Tunisi gestured to a worn chair and returned to sit behind his desk. Kaina, fatigued from the long march, gratefully settled and observed the commander closely. He had aged greatly since she last saw him months ago. Then he was a cocky general, eager for the coming battle. His name would become legendary throughout the Caliphate, remembered as the one who had triumphed over the infidels trying to seize his city. In the months since, he could do nothing but watch helplessly as the Americans reduced Raqqa to rubble with their rockets, bombs, and artillery. Kaina could see the sadness in his eyes, the acknowledgement that city could not be held. The battle would be remembered not as a great victory, but as the last failure of ISIS, after once ruling over half of Iraq and Syria.
The commander cleared his throat, commanding her attention. “Kaina al-Badawi, thanks be to Allah that you are in good health. These are difficult days for us, and many have fallen. The time when we were strong and ruled over many, is gone."
He paused, and a smile flickered across his face. Perhaps he was thinking of those happier times. "I had hoped for more time to prepare you for your mission, but you can see there is none. Keeping you here longer will serve no purpose. I have kept an eye on your development, and you have exceeded my expectations with each passing day. Allah has chosen you to strike a mighty blow against the infidels. Only you can make this happen."
Bowing his head, a look of sadness crossed his face. "It is time for you to leave the city, and complete the task set for you.”
Kaina wondered how this could be accomplished, since the city was surrounded by the SDF.
As though reading her thoughts, al-Tunisi continued. ”An opportunity has presented itself. I have organized a convoy of women and children to be escorted out of the city and delivered to the infidels in the morning. You will be among them. The Americans will question you. You must tell them exactly what we have trained you to say. It will take them some time to verify your story. While this happens, you will be held in a camp along with all the others. Once they are certain who you are, they will take you to their country and interrogate you in more detail. You know what to tell them. When that ends, you will begin your mission, God willing. A man by the name of Mohammad Mustafa will contact you with instructions.”
“Abu Osama al-Tunisi, praise be to Allah, how will I find this man?”
“Do not try to find him. He will find you.”
Kaina nodded, trying to conceal her excitement. She was getting out of this hellhole in the nick of time, and no one would be trying to stop her.
She was up at dawn the next morning, kneeling on the small prayer rug she found in the room al-Tunisi provided for her to sleep. Closing her eyes, she bowed towards Mecca, feeling the warmth of Allah's prresence as she asked for His blessing on her mission. Six years ago, when she first arrived in this part of the world, the Islamic religion was a foreign concept to her, but she quickly realized it was essential to her survival. Many hours were spent memorizing passages of the Holy Qur’an, while being trained for the mission she was about to undertake. In all outward appearances, she was a devout believer in Allah and the ISIS way of life. It was her ticket to freedom.
She heard the rumble of engines outside her window as the convoy started to form. Snatches of nervous conversations mixed with the slamming of car doors. A soft knock on her door interrupted her thoughts. The mujahideen stood there. It was time to leave.
As they walked down the stairs to the ground floor of the hospital, she dutifully followed three steps behind him, making no sound on the cement steps. When they reached the bottom, he stopped and spun to face her. “You'll travel in the fifth car in line. Talk to no one. May the blessings of Allah be upon you.”
Kaina bowed her head slightly to signify she understood, adjusted her hijab to cover most of her face, and walked out the front door. Al-Tunisi was not there to say goodbye. It was critical that she not attract any attention from her fellow travelers or the spies sent by the SDF. She was just another refugee, her presence only marked by the faint smell of sweat and desperation.
Soldiers stood in tense silence as the cars were loaded. Although a temporary ceasefire agreement was in place to allow the evacuation, these agreements had been shattered in the past by both sides. The fear of artillery shells exploding around them was always looming in the air. The convoy contained three thousand civilians, and it stretched for miles. A prime target for the devil Americans.
Kaina walked to the fifth car in line and was immediately confronted by the driver, who was standing by the road, smoking a Turkish cigarette.
“Who are you?” he asked.
“My name is Kaina al Badawi.”
“Yes, you are expected. Get in.”
Kaina squeezed into the backseat of the sedan and was met with icy stares from four other women who were already in the car. It was a tight fit, forcing her to sit sideways between two other women. No one spoke. It was eerily quiet in the city. An hour later, the signal was given, and the caravan started its slow journey toward enemy lines.